Latest Reviews
Friday
Sep262014

Two Night Stand

So rarely does a romantic comedy break from the tried and true mold that the many romantic comedies that came before it set as precedent. They’re usually simple stories where two people meet cute, fall in love, have a forced dramatic falling out and then get back together in the end, much to the pleasure of their target audiences. However, movies like “(500) Days of Summer” proved that you can do something different and tell a truthful story within the genre while still producing something of quality. “Two Night Stand,” on the other hand, puts a unique spin on rom-coms, but fails to produce something meaningful. The two lead actors are game and do their best, but their efforts are frivolous, as the material they’re working with is substandard.

Megan (Analeigh Tipton) is a single girl living with a friend in New York City. She’s unemployed and fresh out of a long term relationship that she never thought would end. One night, her roommate invites her out to mingle with some friends at a bar, urging her to simply hook up with someone and get her mind off her current situation. Unfortunately, she forgets her ID and ends up back at home all alone yet again. In an effort to feel something, she jumps on a dating site and finds Alec (Miles Teller), a twenty something young man who doesn’t feed her creepy lines and lives in an apartment devoid of weird sexual paraphernalia, so she asks him if he wants to meet up for a one night stand, to which he agrees. What they don’t realize is that a storm is approaching. When they wake up the next morning, they realize they are stuck together in his apartment and forced to get to know each other on a deeper level.

Or at least you’d think so. The premise puts a unique spin on an event many have lived through, an event that many would argue is an emotionally thin and unfulfilling experience, even if in the short term it was pleasurable. Megan and Alec have no intention of ever seeing each other again after their night of random fun, but they’re forced to endure each other due to the overnight blizzard. So what do they talk about? Do they philosophize? Do they talk about the things that matter most to them? Do they pick each other’s brains, trying to get to the root of who they are? No, they compare and contrast each other’s love making skills, each criticizing the other for their various sexual deficiencies when, in all honesty, they should be criticizing for being personality-less bores. “Before Sunrise” this is not.

Then, after they’re done verbally destroying each other, they (naturally) decide to give it another go, because nothing puts people in the mood to have sex like hearing how bad they are at it. The preceding moments are meant to be cute, to stand out from the norm of how couples, or even flings, interact, but it comes off as hokey nonsense, which is no doubt due to a collaboration between a first time writer and director. Neither have an idea how to create meaningful moments or set a pace to get to them. Despite some of its shenanigans, “Two Night Stand” clearly aspires to be something more than your typical rom-com, but nearly all of its attempts to stand apart from the crowd fall flat.

The most obvious example comes from its finale. Anyone who has ever been in a romantic relationship knows that romance films are sometimes closer to fantasy than “Harry Potter,” but to get those fuzzy feelings one desires from the genre, one must go along with it, but the final sequence in this film is absurd. It truly reeks of desperation, to not end like its genre brethren and instead put a comedic spin on what usually amounts to a cheesy closing, but it consists of actions that, in the real world (and without spoiling it), would have the complete opposite outcome. If it wasn’t for the shoddy execution up to that point, one would be upset that those aforementioned fuzzy feelings got ruined by such sickening cutesiness.

“Two Night Stand” simply isn’t very good. The two leads are naturally charming, Teller in particular as he somehow manages to pull laughs out of poor material that a lesser actor would be lost in, but their character arcs are unbelievable. At a brisk 82 minutes without credits, they are given no time to grow and the numerous transitions they make from hating to loving each other and back again feel rushed (not to mention that the first transition comes not from a mutual understanding or acceptance of each other, but simply because they got high to pass the time, which isn’t exactly the most romantic way for a relationship to blossom).

It’s commendable for a romantic comedy to try to stand out, especially with a clever premise such as this, but “Two Night Stand” tries too hard and doesn’t have the filmmaking know how to back it up.

Two Night Stand receives 1.5/5

Friday
Sep192014

The Maze Runner

There’s something about a good mystery that grips me. I have an innate desire to solve, or at least witness the solving of, mysteries, even if the material itself is subpar. This week’s latest young adult novel turned film, “The Maze Runner,” is an example of that, as it kept me interested with one of those mysteries, even as the characters and narrative structure failed to impress. It’s by no means great, and is likely to divide reviewers based on minute details, as the film itself is as middling as they come, but if you’re into stories with slow revelations and a mystery worth solving, you could do a lot worse than “The Maze Runner.”

As the film opens, Timothy (Dylan O’Brien), wakes up in an elevator ascending at incredible speeds, but to where he doesn’t know. When he reaches the top, he finds a colony of other young men who have themselves previously made the same journey. They tell him that they don’t know why they’re here or who sent them, as their memories have been almost completely wiped, with only their names remaining (it’s “the one thing they let us keep,” one character explains to him). Everyone has a job to sustain their livelihood, but the most important boys are called “runners.” Every day, an opening leading to a gigantic maze appears in the giant walls encasing them before closing again at dusk. The runners explore the maze every day, mapping it out and trying to find an exit, and if they don’t return by the time the doors close, they’re never seen again, taken by mysterious entities the inhabitants call “grievers.” Three years have passed since they began mapping the maze and nothing has resulted from it, but Timothy is determined to get out of there and takes matters into his own hands.

The moment “The Maze Runner” begins, it hooks you. It doesn’t bother with backstory or even context for such an opening. Much like the character you’re watching, it simply throws you blindsided into a situation you know nothing about (provided you haven’t read the book, of course). It has you begging for answers. Who is this person? Where is this maze and why does it exist? This is, oddly enough, the film’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. The questions at the core of the narrative are enticing, but the answers to them leave much to be desired. By not providing any backstory, it’s impossible to care about these kids. Characters need to be defined, to be given personalities, for an audience to truly connect with them and care about their plight. By stripping them of those things before the movie even begins, it creates a heavy burden on the upcoming narrative and character exploration, which needs to make up for such emptiness.

Sadly, the eventual reveals don’t add much to the emotional hole residing in the core of “The Maze Runner.” As Timothy’s actions affect the colony and its inhabitants discover their true personalities, the movie hits a lull. It tries to move the story forward, but nevertheless brings it to a screeching halt. None of the characters are built in a believable way and their narrative arcs are obvious; their previous behavior a clear indicator of what they will become. Even worse, they start to give speeches and wax poetic about their freedom, yet they do so with childish dialogue, perhaps understandable given their age and intellectual immaturity, but it doesn’t make for the most interesting cinema.

It’s a shame because that central mystery is strong, even if it is surrounded by crummy dialogue, poor characterizations and oppressively dark nighttime scenes, which leads to action sequences with the grievers that can barely be followed when coupled with the aggressive shaky cam. In fact, I was so anxious to see the big reveal that I didn’t want to see it end—a clear indicator of a great mystery. Unfortunately, its reveal isn’t a particularly big one, serving merely as a cliffhanger for the sequel. Ending on a cliffhanger is not an inherently bad approach, but the story at hand still needs to have some type of resolution and the one provided here is minor when compared to other young adult film adaptations.

“The Maze Runner” is, by and large, a take it or leave it affair. It does some things incredibly well, but stumbles like a drunk, elderly cripple elsewhere. Worth noting is a terrific performance from the young lead actor, O’Brien. Although there is ultimately nothing here worth caring about, he pulls off his emotional scenes with fervor. By the end, though, “The Maze Runner” proves itself as little more than a cinematic tease. It entices you like a string of yarn to a curious cat, but when the string is finally grabbed and the foundation falls apart, you quickly realize there wasn’t much to get excited about in the first place.

The Maze Runner receives 2.5/5

Thursday
Aug072014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

I don’t remember a world when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn’t exist. I had just turned one year old when the original cartoon debuted in 1987 and it was, to my recollection, the first thing outside of friends and family that I fell in love with. I’ve watched every show and movie, played every video game, read many of the comics and even owned much of the merchandise; boxes of various Ninja Turtles paraphernalia are still resting underneath my bed, in my closet and in my attic. While I’ve abandoned much of my childhood loves, the Ninja Turtles are the one thing I still enjoy to this day.

Couple my admiration with pre-release reports of a troubled production and various other controversies and I became sure the newest movie, succinctly titled “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” was going to be a disaster. After all, if they could change the design of the heroes in a half-shell to something so atrocious, surely the rest of the filmmaking decisions would follow suit. I didn’t want to, but I was ready to trash this film if the final product called for it. However, nothing pleases me more than to say that such negativity is unwarranted. Although the design of the Turtles have changed, their personalities remain intact. This is an impressive, action packed film with some terrific humor and an expectedly hokey plot that is both to its benefit and detriment. This new movie won’t convert non-fans, but if they can look past the visual changes, longtime devotees will find much to love.

April O’Neil (Megan Fox) is a television reporter in New York City who has been relegated to fluff stories. Much like any young reporter, she longs to make her big break with an independent investigation on the local criminal organization, the Foot Clan. She gets too close to the story, however, and finds herself stuck in a bad situation, only to be rescued by vigilante heroes that nobody has seen before. Her focus quickly turns to them and she ends up discovering that those vigilantes are actually mutated, walking, talking turtles. Pleasantries will have to wait, though, because a threat is looming over the city. The Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), the leader of the Foot Clan, is in cahoots with business mogul, Eric Sachs (William Fichtner), and together they intend on taking over the city.

As far as story goes, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” isn’t the most creative, nor does it deviate much from the tried and true formula set forth all those years ago in the original show: the Shredder hatches a ridiculous plan while the Turtles fight his goons and crack some jokes along the way, leading to a “close call” finale—when our heroes may or may not foil his plan at the very last second. This is all to be expected.

But as the old adage goes, it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey, and TMNT is filled with enough clever jokes (“That’s stupid” April says at one point after someone mistakes the Turtles as aliens, a clear reference to the pre-release controversy that suggested our heroes’ acronym may need to be modified to TANT, an unfortunate acronym depending on how one pronounces it) and surprisingly impressive action scenes to make that journey worthwhile. In modern cinema, ill-advised attempts to enhance the action through shaky camerawork and rapid editing have put a damper on what would otherwise serve up some serviceable excitement. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” for the most part at least, avoids this perplexing tactic. Things get hectic, sure, but the camerawork remains fluid; not once does it lose its way. A standout scene takes place on a snowy mountainside (though one must wonder where such a place exists in New York City), as the Turtles and their enemies slide downhill with all manner of chaos revolving around them. This sequence is well choreographed and extremely exciting, marking itself as one of the standout action scenes of the summer.

More interesting is that April’s connection to the Turtles extends beyond the “damsel in distress” role she has been relegated to in previous Turtles iterations. While I hesitate to explain what that connection is out of fear of spoilers, it nevertheless makes her inclusion in the narrative more integral than she has been in the past. In this movie, April O’Neal is a strong female character, a fearless reporter that has dreams of becoming more and not settling for mediocrity. She’s more than just a pretty face, despite what Megan Fox’s casting may suggest, even if the actress isn’t entirely believable in the role.

For fans of the franchise, the largest deficiency will undoubtedly be the design of the characters. Only Splinter (mostly) retains his expected look while Shredder looks like a metallic Edward Scissorhands and the Turtles could rightfully be classified as the Teenage Mutant Hipster Turtles, their design obviously updated to appeal to the young kids out there as they wear sunglasses on their heads and puka shell necklaces around their necks while Donatello’s tech equipment is akin to those obnoxious Bluetooth devices many folks wear even when not actually using them. More than anything else, the character designs leave much to be desired.

Other minor nagging issues rear their ugly heads from time to time, like the voice casting of Johnny Knoxville as Leonardo, whose voice is far too recognizable and clearly stands out from the rest of the gang, and some childish humor that, even though it fits within the context of teenage immaturity, is worthy of little more than an eye roll and disgruntled sigh. Luckily, this type of humor is few and far between, serving only as a minor detour from the spot on self-deprecating and pop culture jokes.

There is much to like in this new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Don’t let the pre-release controversy or lackluster trailers sway you; it is more than the sum of its parts. It may or may not work for the uninitiated, but Turtles fans are sure to have a good time.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles receives 4/5

Thursday
Aug072014

Into the Storm

Too often, a fundamental flaw pervades “natural disaster” movies: the focus tends to be on the destruction and chaos rather than the characters. Recent years have shown the physical and emotional devastation such events can cause to neighborhoods and families, so a movie about one of these events is ripe for hard hitting drama, but the characters that could bring that drama forth are usually relegated to supporting characters in relation to the storm, human fodder for its carnage. “Into the Storm” is no different. It tries to force some narrative angles in, but the final product is largely empty. If 2012’s “The Impossible” serves as an example of how to explore similar territory well, “Into the Storm” exemplifies its opposite.

The film follows the Titus Team, a crew of documentarians and storm chasers who have been tasked with capturing footage of a tornado. Most important among them is meteorologist Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Pete (Matt Walsh), the latter of whom hopes to capture the first ever footage of the eye of the storm using new technology, including a tank-like vehicle that can stay grounded in winds up to 175 miles per hour. Lucky for them, a storm is brewing and it’s going to be a big one. Unluckily for the rest of the town, including the high schoolers attending their graduation ceremony nearby, the storm is growing far beyond what is expected and is certain to destroy their livelihood.

To its credit, “Into the Storm” at least tries to create interesting characters, even if it doesn’t know how to construct its narrative around them. An example comes from the relationship between Allison and her daughter hundreds of miles away, whom she talks and Skypes with on the phone. Similar to last year’s hit, “Gravity,” the mother/daughter angle is forced in to try to manufacture drama out of thin material (though that in no way implies Gravity is a bad movie—just to be clear, it is not), a cheap way to build characterization and trick the audience into caring about the person onscreen. It doesn’t work. One scene around the midway point shows Allison clutching to the door of that tank-like car as the winds threaten to pull her into the tornado. The unified feeling of apathy from the audience at my screening couldn’t have been more noticeable if we all simultaneously started yawning.

Only one sequence of events carries any dramatic impact. It revolves around Donnie (Max Deacon), son of the high school’s Vice Principal, Gary (Richard Armitage). He’s supposed to be filming the graduation ceremony, but passes the responsibility off to his younger brother so he can schmooze with his crush, Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey), a character who is largely forgotten when this sequence ends. While at an abandoned factory, the storm hits and they find themselves trapped in a hole under rubble with no way to get out and water quickly culminating around them. With the very real possibility of death approaching, the two take the time to record their final testaments and it hits hard. The actors pull the scene off and the sense of hopelessness is crushing. Unfortunately, these moments are offset shortly after by contrived screenplay happenstances that I won’t delve into in case somebody actually wants to see this, but the primary thing to take away is that even when “Into the Storm” has something good going, it fails to realize it and effectively ruins it.

There are a handful of neat moments as the storm rages on, including a nice nod to the film all films of this ilk will be compared to, 1996’s “Twister,” but these moments are fleeting and don’t do enough to make up for the movie’s glaring deficiencies. These are stupid characters making stupid decisions while poorly delivering badly written dialogue. The storm is all there is, unless you count the bumbling redneck comic relief characters that repeatedly appear parallel to the professionals, the worst comic relief duo to pop up in a film since the paranormal investigators in “Insidious.”

Even worse, “Into the Storm” ends on a cheesy, message heavy and, more offensively, slightly happy note—sure, communities were destroyed and thousands of people just died, but hey, we recognize that person’s face from the beginning of the film! “Into the Storm” is a mess and with so many great films to see in theaters right now, why waste your time with it?

Into the Storm receives 1/5

Thursday
Jul172014

Boyhood

Writer/director Richard Linklater’s latest film, “Boyhood,” is tough to discuss because, while it is most certainly worth seeing, it’s difficult to determine if my admiration for it comes from my thinking it’s a great movie or merely a fascinating storytelling experiment. Filmed over the course of 12 years using the same actors as they naturally grew older, the film follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from a six year old adolescent to a college bound adult and it’s easy to relate to. To a certain extent, all who have lived through those years and experienced the highs and lows of growing up will see themselves in young Mason or his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). If other published reviews are any indication, it’s this strange feeling of seeing our lives (or at least a decent representation of them) onscreen that is garnering the film its acclaim. But step back and look at it from a filmmaking and narrative point of view, stripped from its unique 12 year shoot, and you start to see some rough edges.

These come in the way of a story that is fairly traditional, regardless of the unique way it was captured. There isn’t much here we haven’t seen before—a broken home, an unsure future, a young boy coming of age—though it isn’t these aspects themselves that don’t work. On the contrary, they work very well. Growing up is scary, especially if your childhood is surrounded by an unstable family, and making that transition to adulthood is one of uncertainty: of where we’re going, what we’ll do, who we’ll meet, who we’ll become or if we’ll find success in our endeavors. Perhaps more succinctly, will we be happy? It’s impossible to know and “Boyhood” captures this uneasiness perfectly.

Where it stumbles is in its redundancy and inability to explore key aspects of a young person’s life that is integral to who they eventually become. The latter issue can largely be excused. Even with a runtime of nearly three hours, it’s impossible to fit every life changing event in, though certain important topics are picked up and dropped so nonchalantly that they feel forced, almost as if Linklater felt compelled to include them, but had no idea what to do with them. The best example comes with its all-too-brief discussion on religion. A child’s spiritual journey, from believing what they’re told to figuring things out for themselves, is a big thing. Whether someone ultimately decides to keep their faith or abandon it (or discover it in this case, since Mason’s parents seem to have never introduced him to it) is a long and tough process that is glossed over inconsequentially here.

However, this is not the film’s focus, so it’s a minor issue. Less forgivable is its rush through certain periods of their lives, like when they discover their first stepfather’s completely out-of-left-field alcoholism, and its repeat of previous events; their second stepfather too proves himself to be an abusive alcoholic, though not a violent one like the first. There may be those out there who can relate to this (rare though they may be), but it leads to narrative staleness. The fear you’ll feel from their first encounter will likely be replaced by a weary shrug when it happens again. It seems like there was a narrative need to have their mother divorce this man to get the family back on their own, but why resort to the same approach as before? A simple explanation that the two had simply fallen out of love would have sufficed and is just as believable.

Nevertheless, this is a very good movie, the aforementioned flaws a minor part of its overall impressive (and lengthy) construction. In fact, it’s the little things that give the movie its poignancy: when Mason develops his first crush, experiences his first heartbreak and has to quickly decide how to respond to peer pressure. The latter scene will speak to everyone watching, regardless of their own personal choice, as they watch Mason give in and start drinking while a friend refuses and suffers the harsh, emasculating name calling, as if chugging a beer would somehow make him a man.

Other moments come and go, some happy, some sad and some so funny and tender they’ll likely arouse an unexpected laugh and smile out of you, particularly the sex talk Mason’s father, played by Ethan Hawke, has with his sister, but the most impressive aspect of “Boyhood” is how it captures the time period, each year feeling like a brief snapshot in an era since passed. The characters play original Xbox systems, the soundtrack consists of music from the year represented, like a track off Blink-182’s 2001 album, “Take Off Your Pants and Jacket,” and the characters read the Harry Potter books, even dressing up as the characters later on during a book release event after the series has become a full blown phenomenon. It even pokes fun of these time periods, most notable in a 2008 section focusing on the election between Barack Obama and John McCain. At the time of filming, Linklater cleverly realized the extremes of the two sides as he portrays a Republican man smugly commenting that Obama’s middle name is Hussein and an overenthusiastic Democrat who supports Obama, but seems to have no idea why.

“Boyhood” captures not just the triumphs and tribulations of growing up, but also serves as a spot-on reminder of how our world has evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view) over the last 12 years. It’s a little rough around the edges with a handful of blurry shots and some occasionally rigid performances (that get better as the kids get older) and its narrative can be a bit clunky, but it is nevertheless an accurate and engrossing representation of growing up. Individual moments never last for long and before you know it, those little kids have become full grown adults, a realization indicative of many of our own lives.

Ultimately, that’s the point of “Boyhood.” It realizes that life isn’t always easy or pleasant, but it goes by quick and the amalgamation of these moments make it worth living. As one character astutely points out late in the film, life isn’t necessarily about seizing the moment, as the old adage goes; after all, you can’t always control the situations life throws at you. Perhaps more appropriately, she says, it’s about letting the moment seize you.

Boyhood receives 4/5